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william blake at the ngv 2014


       Undoubtedly when it comes to Gothic Romanticism, there is no other name more strongly connected to its pulsation than that of William Blake. A forerunner to the Age of Enlightenment and an advocate to a contrary view of traditional theology, Blake’s oeuvre occupies a more paradoxical than allegorical universe. The periphery of religious subjects which preside over a large quantity of Blake’s work is most alluring when seen through a paradigm of enlightened philosophy. A man who believed that humankind should never “cultivate their own desire” and in protestation created painterly representations to its decree; William Blake was unquestionably a poetic mediator between darkness and light. One could even comfortably say that his visual perception was in fact, a Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

       This April, the National Gallery of Victoria will host an exhibition containing William Blake’s watercolours, etchings, illustrated books and print media. Among the works showcased will be Blake’s infamous visual representation of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Mythical beasts, divine creation and landscapes of purgatory all of which are executed with a boldness in colour are among Blake’s finest work. Over thirty creations from this series of one hundred and twenty will be included, but due to the material’s sensitivity to light exposure, seeing them in a gallery context is an extremely rare experience.

       Blake’s incandescent watercolours are technically exquisite and, although Romantic in subject, their appearance is no doubt Symbolist in expression. In Dante Running From The Three Beasts (1824-1827), the scene visually recounts the opening of the epic poem. Dante, robed in washes of watercolour rouge is depicted in the foreground with the Roman poet Virgil. In the tale, Virgil acts as Dante’s guide through the dark passages of hell – a symbolic rendering of the notion that the light of poetic sensibility leads a beacon-like semblance through darkness.

       The exhibition will also display an exquisite illustrated copy of The Songs of Innocence, one of Blake’s earliest poems. The illustrations reveal Blake’s astute technical brilliance in the medium of printmaking. The system is entirely unique in that colour printmaking of this nature was unseen prior to Blake’s execution of this medium. This surely is an exhibition not to be missed, as it offers a rare insight into one of British Romanticism’s most important figures. Blake is a master of conceiving images of darkness and the macabre within the resplendence of ephemeral watercolours. You can see them first hand for a short time only at the National Gallery of Victoria.


William Blake (4 April – 31 August 2014)

National Gallery of Victoria / Free Entry

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